US President Barack Obama’s Prague speech (April 2009) gave impetus to the renewed effort on global nuclear disarmament, led by the ‘nuclear quartet’ and the Global Zero movement. What has been the focus of the Indian nuclear debate since Obama’s Prague speech and other efforts towards global nuclear disarmament? The Indian debate could be divided into three questions: Is a nuclear weapons free world (NWFW) in India’s security interest? If the United States and China sign and ratify the CTBT (Comprehensive Test ban Treaty), will India be forced to follow suit? If India becomes a member of the NPT, will it seek to further its global status vis-à-vis the other de-facto nuclear states?
Although there have been serious reservations in India following Obama’s speech, the issues dwelt on in the speech have found reverberations in the Indian debate, which seeks to address the implications of Obama’s proposed agenda. They are: one, to devalue the significance of nuclear weapons in the US national security strategy; second, the conviction to ensure ratification of the CTBT, and third, to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, coupled with efforts to bring the de-facto nuclear states within its fold.
The Indian perspective on disarmament is not homogeneous or coherent, as has been portrayed by the Indian nuclear doctrine (Article 8.1). Indian thinking on the issue is fragmented, and divided between the realists and the idealists: the former argues for the continued existence of ‘nuclear weapons for deterrence’ and the latter affirms India’s ‘commitment to universal, non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament’. Two strands positioned diagonally and inter-related with the realists and idealists are the nationalists and the pragmatists, according to Dr Rajesh Rajagopalan, Professor of International Politics at JNU.
Of the three questions posed above, the first can be answered affirmatively as different strands of the Indian debate converge on the existence of nuclear weapons for political utility aimed at deterring its regional rivals - China and Pakistan. The Indian nuclear weapons programme has, according to authorities, been directed against China. Hence, in the event of India not facing any serious ‘existential insecurities’ from China given the latter’s No First Use, and from Pakistan given the superiority of India’s conventional military, a NWFW is in Indian interest. However, realists, primarily from a military background, such as Indian Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor and Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, point towards the possibility of a two-front war in this situation, waged simultaneously with China and Pakistan and fatal to India’s position. A differing element of realist thought has been put forward by Prof Rajagopalan, who has linked the presence of nuclear weapons with India’s inability to react to Pakistan’s constant provocations. Idealists, followers of the Gandhian and Nehruvian legacies, would visualize a NWFW as a symbol of India’s cultural and non-violent past, while pragmatists (K Subrahmanyam, for instance) would link it to the present revival of interest by major powers in nuclear disarmament, and its impact on India’s global position.
The response to the second question should be linked to the voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing which India assumed for itself following the tests of May 1998, and the not-so recent controversy voiced by scientists K. Santhanam and Ashok Parthasarathi about the failure of the 1998 fusion tests. Against this background, signing the CTBT either as replication (after the US and China) or as adhering to the promises made by India during CTBT negotiations could be in India’s interest. India, by being a party to the CTBT, would not only signal the credibility of India’s minimum deterrent but would also help in divorcing itself from the ‘1998 tests as failure’ claims. However, the realists and the nationalists, with one overlapping the other in most cases, have come out strongly against the treaty. Bharat Karnad, a nationalist, in this author’s view, has given weight to Santhanam’s charge by linking it to Indian Prime Minister’s zero resistance to Obama’s nonproliferation policy push, inclusive of signing the CTBT. Lt General VR Raghavan, a realist, has linked the issue of signing the CTBT to its correspondence with India’s national interest.
The third question also elicits a diverse response from Indian thinkers. India, despite not being a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has earned the position of a de-facto, reluctant and responsible nuclear power. Being ‘reluctant’ is premised on its policy of No First Use, and being ‘responsible’, on the back of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation deal and the NSG waiver. Former Indian Ambassador to the UN Conference on Disarmament Arundhati Ghose categorically states that nobody in India is in favour of signing the NPT, so much so that there is the lack of a clear consensus regarding the government’s stand on nuclear disarmament as well. There is a consensus nevertheless between the various strands of the debate on the refusal to sign the treaty in its present form which requires India to join as a non-nuclear weapon state (NNWS).
The Indian debate is a case in point in that it reflects both areas of convergence and divergence. Further development on any of these will have serious repercussions for both India’s stand on nuclear disarmament as well as its overall global standing. In any case, India’s commitment towards nuclear disarmament cannot be read in isolation; it is inextricably linked with global aspirations for a world free of nuclear weapons.